Can you beat addictions with love?

My husband has been wrestling with drugs, alcohol, gambling and porn. We're in therapy, but can he ever be cured?

Published February 26, 2003 8:03PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Given the personal history that you have shared in your past columns, I would like to ask your opinion on some advice my husband and I are getting from our couples therapist. We have been married for 16 years, and throughout that time my husband has wrestled with one addiction or another: drugs, alcohol, gambling and porn, and often all at the same time. He would temporarily prevail over them for a while and be clean, sober and a great husband and father. And then we would descend into the abyss again.

About four months ago I felt worn out and betrayed, had lost my capacity to trust that we would ever come out of this on the other side, and I left my husband. His immediate response was to quit and promise never to start again, as I had heard so many times before. I thought I would be able to actually go this time; I couldn't, but I did get him to agree to see a therapist, something he had never agreed to before.

This man seems to be helping, and we see him together and separately, but I am puzzled by his approach to addiction. He says that addiction to anything is about a momentary pleasure-seeking that is extremely gratifying for the addict, and the long-term behavior serves to mask pain in their life. He has us on a therapy track that is all about replacing the immediate gratification of the addiction with behaviors that reinforce our relationship. So we are in intensive couples therapy focused on finding and reinforcing what is good and strong in our marriage and making changes in weak areas. It is working really well, but my issue and question for you is, can this really work? My husband is the son of alcoholic parents. Doesn't he need to go to rehab? Doesn't he need to get to some deep underlying repressed childhood thing? Can you beat addictions with love?

Hopeful, but Scared

Dear Hopeful but Scared,

Your therapist sounds great, and really smart, and what he or she is saying makes perfect sense. It might be possible to engineer your husband's behavior away from the pleasure-seeking and toward more long-term goals, and uncovering some of the pain he is masking with his addictions might help him change. But at the heart of your question is a mystery that is captured perfectly when you say, "It is working really well, but ... can this really work?" Which I take to mean, you see improvement, but is this the solution?

The only ones who can answer that are you and your husband.

As long as your therapy continues to work, I would not second-guess it. But here's the rub: Addicts are liars and actors. When faced with calamity, they begin to perform. As long as they're staving off calamity, they perform beautifully. Once the threat of calamity fades, it's anybody's guess. And people who get involved with addicts have their own set of complementary characteristics -- unrealistic hopes, blind credulity, Job-like patience.

Without speaking specifically about your husband, I can say that addicts often follow a general pattern: They get better, they get worse, the wife leaves, they straighten up, she comes home, they get into therapy at her insistence and things are better for a while, and then -- and I'm just saying this is one pattern -- they finish with the therapy, everybody relaxes, and slowly they slip into their old ways, they isolate, and things get worse again. And this is because the addict himself has not been relieved of the craving. He has not undergone the radical transformation that I think you're alluding to when you mention rehab and the "deep, underlying, repressed childhood thing." That's what 12-step programs promise: a relief from the craving.

As long as you're making progress with the therapist, it's unlikely that your husband would feel compelled to enter rehab or undertake a 12-step program. People usually only undertake those programs in earnest when they've tried everything else and the situation is unbearable. So it might be that working with a therapist is only delaying the inevitable calamity, the bottom, as it were, the dead end at which the addict surrenders and the recovery process begins for real. But therapy works. And miracles happen spontaneously. People go unaccountably sane. In fact, the 12 steps are, in a sense, an attempt to codify and mass-produce just such naturally occurring cures.

So is there a point when you know you've gotten through it and it's over? Well, there are yardsticks of progress.

If you saw a change in your husband, if he seemed to be somehow more in his skin, if he seemed calmer or quieter or like he'd had a bad blow to the head (really!), that might be a sign of progress. If he seemed less charming, that might be a good sign! It might mean his routine is broken, that he's trying to cobble together a new him. As long as he is participating in this system of therapy that you set up, however, it's possible that he's just playing along.

The other part of this rather long answer is that even if your husband does undertake a program of recovery on his own, it would be good for you to realize that there isn't a specific date on which he's cured; you might do well to look at your husband's condition the way alcoholics look at theirs, as not something like an attack of bronchitis that you catch and then you cure, but like a chronic, irreversible condition, like a severed limb. This therapist is trying to teach you both how to live with this condition and to mitigate its negative effects. Whether your husband successfully undertakes a program of recovery on his own or not, you have to learn to live with this condition. The condition does not really go away even if he's completely abstinent; if he decides he's cured and picks up a drink, he could be back at Square 1. So life with an addict involves a kind of ongoing maintenance. In fact, even if you were to leave him, he would still be there. Addicts don't leave quietly or completely -- there's always a faint waft of cigarette smoke or a water ring on the coffee table.

Can you beat addictions with love? Well, yes, that's what the 12 steps do: They beat addictions with love, but also with unstinting honesty and a lot of structure. Where addicts get into trouble with romantic love is that instead of the raw, tough, uncompromising love of a roomful of peers, romantic love allows for subtle evasions and improvisatory half-truths -- not lies, exactly, but not the searing truth either, not the harsh, cleansing revelation that can take the varnish off an heirloom.

I would strongly urge you to keep doing what you're doing as long as it seems to be working. I'd also suggest you visit some group like Al-Anon, where you can meet people who are in situations like yours, and learn from them. Then, if the therapy stops working, you can ask your friends in Al-Anon what they think you should do.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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